With the world watching on a snowy January day in 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the thirty-fifth and youngest elected President of the United States, and Camelot was born. The 43-year-old Kennedy walked to the rostrum and delivered one of the shortest and most elegant inaugural addresses in over 175 years. Part of his address follows:
"Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friends and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to ensure the survival and success of liberty. ...
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it and the glow from that fire could truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country."
The presidential battle between Nixon and Kennedy was, and still is, the closest popular election in history. Kennedy won by a slim 49.7% to Nixon’s 49.5%. JFK often said that had Nixon done better in the debates, he would have won the election. Kennedy had a lot to prove to maintain his popularity. He was an idealist without illusions, a curious man who could be very irritable—his back gave him constant pain and he had other ailments that Americans knew nothing about at the time. Kennedy put together a very fine cabinet made up of accomplished individuals. The Harvard man strongly believed in hiring the best people for the job.
Kennedy was one of the wittiest of U.S. presidents. To a friend, he once gave a silver beer mug inscribed: “There are three things which are real: God, Human Folly and Laughter.” He understood that the first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third. Like Lincoln, Kennedy was bored with self-righteousness, false humility and garrulousness. “It’s a gift,” said some of his staff. “He doesn’t know how to be stuffy.”
When asked by a high-school boy how he became a war hero, the president replied, “It was absolutely involuntary; they sank my boat!”
Catholicism was still an issue for Kennedy when he ran for the presidency. So was the great influence his father had over him. Harry Truman was not an early supporter of JFK’s and once said, “I’m not against the pope, I’m against the pop.” When reporters at a dinner roast teased JFK about his father by presenting a skit featuring the songs “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “Just Send the Bill to Daddy,” Kennedy commented in good spirit, “I just received a wire from my daddy and I quote him, ‘Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide!’”
President Kennedy’s high spirits, even during times of emergency, helped to give Americans a sense of hope. He sparkled at his press conferences, which he reinitiated on a weekly basis. The press had a field day with the Kennedy family and the new President. John Jr. and Caroline running in and out of the Oval Office, playing under JFK’s desk, scooting downstairs to the kitchen, and running through the White House mess were common scenes. Everyone who worked at the White House remembered them with great affection.
Kennedy’s humor became legendary. Unable to attend a testimonial luncheon for Postmaster General J. Edward Day, JFK sent his regrets and added, “I am sending this message by wire, since I want to be certain the message reaches you in the right place at the right time.”
Even as a young man, Jack Kennedy had a great sense of humor. At dinner one night, the senior Kennedy complained about the amount of money his family spent. He said, “No one has the slightest concern for how much they spend,” and proceeded to reprimand one of JFK’s sisters so severely that she left the room in tears. When she returned, JFK looked up and said, “Well, Sis, don’t worry. We have all decided that the only solution is to have Dad work harder.”
Kennedy had his serious moments too; for example, the Cuban Missile Crisis—seventy-two hours of stand-down, the closest any country ever came to nuclear war.
When Kennedy finally met Kruschev at a summit meeting in Vienna regarding foreign policy, the encounter between the two most powerful men on earth was by no means friendly. Kruschev regarded Kennedy as a young, inexperienced upstart and was very frosty during their first meeting. When the two men began a serious discussion of U.S./Soviet relations, Kennedy couldn’t help but notice two medals pinned to the chairman’s lapel.
“What are those?” the President asked.
The chairman replied, “These are the Lenin Peace Medals.” And then Kennedy said, “I hope you get to keep them.”
I loved this president. He brought America and the world together and inspired others to do the same. America was getting bored before JFK, but the Kennedys inspired a new excitement in the nation. Young people stood in line to join the Peace Corps, and people of all walks of life took pride in themselves. Kennedy had a way of making everyone feel important and indeed they really were to him.
Speaking to a group of farmers in Sioux City, Iowa, Kennedy, in his Boston/Cape Cod accent, referred to the agricultural depression and cried out, “The rest of the country is doing very well. What’s wrong with the American fah-mah today?”
As he paused dramatically, someone in the audience yelled out, “He’s stah-ving!” The audience, and JFK, roared with laughter.
Mrs. Kennedy also brought her own inimitable style to the White House, making the Kennedys the most elegant first couple in history. Planning a meal or a state dinner with Mrs. Kennedy was an event everyone looked forward to. A lovely, soft-spoken, young woman of 33, she really knew her stuff.
She had a flair for French cuisine and presentation, and hired none other than Rene Verdon, one of the finest chefs in the world. Verdon, the former chef of the Hotel Carlyle in New York City, brought to the White House exactly the panache Mrs. Kennedy wanted, but she also wanted to ease the severe formality.
Mrs. Kennedy’s first reception was held on a Sunday afternoon. The formal receiving line was dispensed with, and she and the President mingled as they would have in their Georgetown home. Fireplaces blazed, beautiful flowers were everywhere, and waiters passed trays of hors d’oeuvres. Instead of dinners limited to diplomats, congressmen and judges, the First Lady mixed other prominent people from around the country into the guest lists.
Jacqueline Kennedy initiated some very unusual ways to serve official meals at the White House and even away from the White House. One state dinner was held at Mount Vernon The guest of honor was the President of Pakistan. The dinner was staged on the terrace of George Washington’s home and the guests were brought to the party aboard the presidential yacht down the Potomac. The beautiful evening, the music of the fife and drum corps, and the historic significance of the setting all combined to make this dinner a huge success.
Once JFK entertained all the American Nobel laureates at a special dinner in the East Room of the White House. When it came time for the toast, Kennedy stood up and said, “The only time there was more intelligence in the White House was when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
White House dinners became fun under the Kennedys and the White House menus were cut down to four or five courses, each more elegant than the last. This allowed ample time for toasts and socializing.
In addition to the state dinners, the Kennedys entertained twice as many visiting heads of state as previous administrations. The President was often the first at stag luncheons that he held for members of Congress. He personally reviewed the official guest list with his wife, and often tasted the wines and sauces before dressing for dinner. Jack Kennedy sipping sauce from a spoon was a common sight in the White House kitchens. In spite of his hands-on approach to all White House functions, he always made a point to emphasize that all aspects of White House social life were Mrs. Kennedy’s responsibility.
The sheer vitality of President and Mrs. Kennedy makes his assassination in November 1963 even harder to understand. During my research, I came across the speech JFK was to give at the dinner in his honor on the day he was shot. I would like to share it with you, but let me preface it by quoting Senator Abraham Ribicoff, of Connecticut, in 1963: “More than any President before him, he committed the presidency to achieving full civil rights for every American. He opposed prejudice of every kind. There was no trace of meanness in this man. There was only compassion for the frailties of others. If there is a supreme lesson we can draw from the life of John Kennedy, it is a lesson of tolerance, a lesson of conscience, courage, and compassion.”
From John Kennedy’s undelivered speech:
"What kind of peace do we seek? Not a pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about a genuine peace. The kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living. The kind that makes men and nations grow and hope to build a better life for their children, not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time. It should be clear by now that a nation can be no stronger abroad than she is at home. Only in America, which practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice, will be respected by those whose choice affects our future."
Three hours before John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas he said, “If anybody really wanted to shoot the President of the United States it is not a very difficult job. All one has to do is get on a high building someday with a telescopic rifle and there is nothing anyone can do to defend against such an attempt.” In another strange twist, it has been recorded that John F. Kennedy’s favorite poem was “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by Allen Seeger.
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